Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland have determined that children can develop heightened reasoning skills with a quality diet, minimal red meat consumption and participation in reading and sports.
Their findings were published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and identify reasoning skills as vital for academic performance and everyday problem-solving.
“The foundations for brain health and cognitive functions are laid already in childhood. By improving children’s brain health and cognitive abilities by investing in a healthy diet and encouraging children to read and participate in sports, we are helping these children to reach their full potential,” Dr. Eero Haapala, co-author of the study, tells Nutrition Insight.
This sub-study examined the effects of a two-year diet and physical activity intervention on cognition among 397 Finnish elementary school children. At the same time, the results are based on data from the Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children (PANIC) study, an ongoing combined dietary and physical activity of school-aged children from Kuopio, Finland.
The original PANIC study had 504 participants, divided into an intervention group of 306 children and a control group with 198 children.
Reasons to improve nutrition
Over two years, more than half of the children participated in a family-based and individual diet that included physical activity. Dietary factors, physical activity and sedentary behavior associated with cognition were also analyzed. The evaluations took into account parental education, income and the child’s body fat percentage and maturity level.
“The main take-home message from our study is that we should be open-minded and curious when looking at the factors influencing the development of cognitive functions. Children are exposed to several positive and negative factors influencing their cognitive development in their everyday life,” explains Haapala. “Therefore, we need a holistic approach to better understand how to support our children.”
“We investigated reasoning skills built on the core components of executive functions, such as inhibition, working memory and cognitive flexibility. While the evidence on whether these skills and functions predict the quality of life is somewhat mixed, children with better reasoning skills and executive functions tend to choose healthier diets and physically active lifestyles when they grow older, indirectly affecting the quality of life,” says Haapala.
The Research Ethics Committee of the Hospital District of Northern Savo has approved the PANIC study protocol used here. The researchers say a strength of the present study is the investigation of the long-term effects of a combined dietary and physical activity intervention on cognition and the longitudinal associations of changes in a relatively large population sample of school-aged children.
The results suggest that improved overall diet quality, the increased consumption of low-fat milk, and increased time spent in organized sports and reading were longitudinally associated with improved cognition in children.
They suggest that further intervention studies are needed to investigate the long-term effects of dietary and PA interventions on cognition from childhood to adolescence.
Meanwhile, researchers from Kerman University of Medical Sciences in Iran reviewed 627 studies in PubMed, Web of Science, and Scopus databases to find evidence of links between the Nordic diet and protective effects on neurological function.
Evaluating the scores
The researchers conducted a non-randomized controlled trial in children aged six to nine. The children and their parents in the intervention group participated in six dietary and six physical activity counseling sessions.
They assessed cognition using Raven’s Colored Progressive Matrices (RCPM) and dietary factors by four-day food records, computing the Baltic Sea Diet Score (BSDS) as a quality measure. Heart rate and body movement monitoring evaluated physical activity and sedentary times.
For example, a three-unit increase in BSDS increased the RCPM score by 0.3 units. A 100 g increase in red meat and sausage consumption or a 30-minute increase in organized sports were related to a 0.90 unit decrease or 0.93 unit increase in RCPM score, which may be clinically meaningful in everyday life.
Increased BSDS, consumption of low-fat milk and reduced consumption of red meat and sausages were associated with improved cognition over two years. Expanded organized sports and reading were positively associated with cognition.
In contrast, excessive time spent on a computer and unsupervised leisure-time physical activity were associated with poorer reasoning skills.
By Inga de Jong